University of Iowa employees recently passed a resolution rebuking the financial company TIAA, which manages the retirement savings for employees at the University of Iowa, for its connections to deforestation, land grabbing, and corporate agriculture in the US and Brazil. The resolution also calls on the University of Iowa to hold TIAA accountable and better protect its employees’ retirement savings and represent their interests. This resolution is just the latest in a wave of faculty and staff resolutions at colleges and universities across the country opposing TIAA’s acquisitions of global farmland which are exacerbating human rights violations, contributing to deforestation, and driving potentially catastrophic “false solutions” to the climate crisis.
After hearing from both supporters of the resolution and TIAA officials, the University of Iowa Staff Council, which represents 7,500 employees, and the Faculty Senate, which represents over 1,600 professors, both voted overwhelmingly to approve the resolution.
The Iowa resolution demands that TIAA be fully transparent about the details of all of its land acquisitions and that the company takes serious action to address the human rights violations, deforestation, and the negative impact on communities as a result of losing land, water, or forest. The resolution also calls on TIAA to allow its clients to keep investments causing deforestation and land grabbing out of their portfolios, which is currently not possible and something the company resists doing.
TIAA’s actions do not live up to its reputation
TIAA claims to be different from other financial firms, citing its historical legacy as a non-profit, its initial role in developing socially responsible investing, and its unique commitment to managing the retirement plans of workers who predominantly serve the public interest – teachers, university employees, researchers and non-profit staff. These groups of workers are engaged in the application of knowledge for future generations, and the safeguarding of human rights, which is why they are taking action.
TIAA also manages our retirement plans at ActionAid USA, and it is because of our concern for the rights of people now and in the future that we continue to demand change and work to support fellow TIAA clients to take action.
Instead of building on its legacy of social responsibility, TIAA has chosen to differentiate itself in recent years by becoming the global leader in the “financialization” of natural resources, speculating on the price of rural land and attempting to control the production of food. TIAA has spent over $10 billion buying up almost 3 million acres of farmland and forests all over the world, and their land deals have exacerbated human rights violations, contributed to environmental destruction and deforestation, and enabled unethical or illegal business practices.
Iowa staff and faculty stand with farmers and rural communities
All across the country, university and non-profit employees are appalled to learn of the loss of the deforestation of communal lands in Brazil taken by land-grabbers and exchanged for TIAA retirement money. But in Iowa, where the university community has a strong sense of the economic and social significance of farmland to the life of local communities, there is extra meaning to opposing this new form of land grabbing.
In particular, Iowa has suffered under a model of corporate agribusiness that has wiped out family farming and decimated rural communities. And while the state of Iowa has laws that prohibit the corporate ownership of farmland, which are supposed to protect rural land and family farmers from corporate buyers like TIAA, these laws in Iowa and in other states still do not provide adequate protection for family farmers or rural land.
So when Iowans heard that TIAA was accused of violating similar laws in Brazil which limit the amount of land foreign corporations can buy, they immediately understood the significance of the wrong. TIAA tried to create its own loophole in Brazilian law, but their acquisitions have been flagged as a violation by Brazilian land officials. Now, due to this violation of the clear intent of the law there is litigation and workers’ retirement money at risk.
The faculty and staff at the University of Iowa were also motivated by solidarity in the struggle for racial justice and incensed that TIAA has been most aggressive about buying land in the United States in areas like the Mississippi Delta region where Black farmers have had millions of acres stolen over the past few generations due to historic and ongoing discrimination, as well as by the fact that the rural communities affected by TIAA’s land deals in Brazil are almost entirely Black, Indigenous and people of color.
This model of accumulating wealth — “accumulation by dispossession” — is not new. To put it bluntly, this is the colonialist method of accumulating wealth: taking land (the basis of all productive activity) away from local communities and peoples, whether by force or fraud, or economic power.
TIAA is going in the wrong direction
TIAA has a long road to travel in restoring the trust of its participants. The company just settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission agreeing to pay a $97 million fine to make amends for profiteering illegally by pushing its clients into higher fee accounts, and TIAA has been found to have some of the highest executive pay among all financial companies, suggesting that their financial deals are more about enriching their own employees than in managing workers’ savings. TIAA’s retiring CEO was just paid 22 million last year and was sent off with a golden parachute of benefits.
Now, the new CEO Thasunda Duckett has started things off on the wrong foot with a greenwashing “commitment” that doesn’t add up to the change needed to address our overheated global climate. TIAA says that it plans to achieve “net-zero” (not actually zero) emissions only by 2050. This is too little too late for the planet, but even worse TIAA plans to use its land acquisitions to position itself to profit from any government or private payments for landowners based on carbon trading schemes. Advances in soil science, however, suggest that land will not be able to re-absorb the carbon put out by polluting industries, and these kinds of schemes threaten further land grabs and violations.
Instead, TIAA needs to stop buying farmland and forests and work with local communities and authorities to address harms and transfer land back to them, in line with international human rights agreements such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants (UNDROP) and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Land Tenure (VGGTs). TIAA also needs to abandon catastrophic false solutions like “net zero” and carbon offsets and get serious about climate change.
We also need TIAA clients across the country to join with us to pressure TIAA to truly represent us to work with us to transform the financial sector to make sure that our savings are invested to support workers, communities, and the planet and to actually build the future. We need investment in a just transition to a real green economy. It needs to stop deforestation, get out of fossil fuels and leave the farmland available for local food producers who feed surrounding regions and contribute to rural and small town economies both here and abroad.